Panos photographer Ami Vitale was one of the 15 photographers selected for the inaugural edition of Photoreporter for her work in Kashmir. Image © Ami Vitale / Panos.
"The idea was to develop new resources for the creation of new photographic work, using small and medium companies as investors," says entrepreneur Alexandre Solacolu. The pitch sounds simple, but when he presented it for the first time to Didier Rapaud, the former director of photography at Paris Match didn't believe for one minute that it would work.
His idea was to create a festival - Photoreporter - that would use public and private funds to finance new bodies of work produced by independently selected photographers. Solacolu, who has made a career in sailing race sponsorship, turned to companies in Saint Brieuc in Brittany, France.
"Private companies have often sponsored the work of photographers - I'm thinking mainly about banks and other financial institutions," says Solacolu. "But what I wanted to show was that you don't need a large organisation to finance photography. I come from the sports world, and it's not unusual to see a company put €100,000 into a sailing competition. Well, with €100,000 you can finance 10 photographers to develop new bodies of work."
For Solacolu, it was essential that sponsors had no say in the work or the photographers selected. "We didn't want anyone to influence the choice of photographers - that's why we wanted to have an independent jury."
In fact, there are no members of the organising committee or local authorities on the jury. For its first edition, which took place in late October, Jean-François Leroy of Visa pour l'Image, Geo magazine's Ruth Eichhorn, and Guillaume Clavières of Paris Match formed part of the jury. "These local businesses are not actually sponsoring photographers; instead, they are giving us the resources to finance photography."
The trick, Solacolu repeated several times during the festival's first edition, is to approach these businesses with the promise of the end result - local, national and international exposure. "You're selling them a service. For these businesses, you're selling them the idea of engaging with their community.
"They are, in effect, helping people connect with the news, while also establishing a creative space in their towns. And that's when it was important for me not to talk to PR managers, but to entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs understand the whole picture. They don't care about their logos being displayed everywhere. What they want is to become local actors."
Once they were hooked on the idea, Solacolu would explain that this could be achieved by financing photographers and exhibiting their newly created project across Saint Brieuc and its surrounding region. "Of course, when they sponsor the festival, they will benefit from our marketing strategy, which brings them in contact with local, national and international journalists, as well [as] local politicians."
And the strategy has proved to successful, with local newspapers dedicating more than 30 of their pages to Photoreporter, and national and international journalists attending the inaugural edition. Yet, Solacolu admits, he would never have been able to put everything together without Rapaud's curatorial help. The former director of photography first met Solacolu in early 2012. "Didier was the only person I interviewed who didn't come to the meeting with his resume, promoting himself," says Solacolu. "When we talked, he was genuinely interested in the fact that there was an opportunity to help shape the future of photojournalism."
Didier Rapaud presents the Photoreporter festival to Geo's Ruth Eichhorn, a judge for the 2012 edition. Image courtesy of Photoreporter.
But, Rapaud admits, it took months for him to believe Solacolu's plans were feasible. "When I first met Alexandre, to tell you the truth, I didn't believe in the concept at all," he says. "What I saw was someone who came out of nowhere with the crazy idea of getting companies to finance photography. Alexandre ended up harassing me for months. And then at Rencontres d'Arles he came with local officials from Saint Brieuc to prove to me that there was a genuine opportunity to do this. That summer, he invited me to Saint Brieuc and I was able to see how interested local businesses were. I saw that these businesses wanted to believe in Photoreporter."
In the end, Solacolu took care of the festival's finances and marketing, while Rapaud put together the call for entries, the judging panel, and curated the exhibitions. For its first edition, the photographers selected were Jim Brandenburg, Claudine Doury, Gwen Dubourthoumieu, Cédric Gerbehaye, Antoine Gyori, Gary Knight, Olivier Jobard, Pierre-Yves Marzin, Sonia Naudy, Zeng Nian, Pierre Terdjman, Tomas Van Houtryve, Gaël Turine and Ami Vitale, each receiving a share of the €150,000 Solacolu raised.
Now both men are taking stock of the first edition before launching the second call for entries. "Feedback has been really positive so far," says Solacolu. "The local sponsors have been impressed by how Saint Brieuc became a centre of interest for more than two weeks. They were impressed by the quality of the events and the fact that we were able to reach a large audience. In fact, a lot of these sponsors want to sign up for the second edition, and also want to become ambassadors to raise funds from other local businesses.
"Of course, when it comes to the organisation, we believe we have a lot of things to fix and improve," he adds. "The venues were not always adequate for the display of photography, and maybe we should create a sort of rallying point for the festival in the centre of town."
But, says Rapaud, he was impressed by how the photographers selected came together during the fortnight, and believes they will become ambassadors for the festival, helping to raise awareness of its potential. "Photoreporter's main goal is to become a laboratory, which can be used to find new economic models for the industry." In fact, adds Solacolu, "I'd love to see other organisations, especially in the media industry, use our model to finance and develop new work."
In the meantime, both men have already committed themselves to a second edition, which is now open for entries. "I think there's hope for the industry," adds Rapaud. "I'm not talking about a revolution, because that's just not the case, but there's a ray of sunshine that didn't necessarily exist before."
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